It’s been seven long months since a group of Ukrainian sailors was illegally captured by the Russian government. The international campaign demanding their immediate release is growing, spreading to new countries. Even in Moscow, where group protests are prosecuted, series of “one-person picketing” has been taking place in front of the Presidential Administration demanding to release the sailors or exchange “all for all” (i.e. all Ukrainian political prisoners held in Russia for Russian citizens held in Ukraine).
The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea has ruled that Russia must return to Ukraine the three military vessels and 24 sailors captured in the Kerch Straight. June 25, 2019 was the deadline for complying with this ruling. In accordance with the Law of the Sea Convention, all military vessels and their personnel have immunity, they cannot be brought before court, imprisoned, and are not subject to foreign jurisdictions. However, the Kremlin has demonstratively ignored the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention adopted in 1982, as well as the ruling of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.
Instead of a quick release of the Ukrainian sailors in the immediate aftermath of Kerch Straight incident, having held them in illegal captivity for seven months, now the Kremlin has started bringing criminal charges against them. Nikolay Polozov, one of the lawyers representing the Ukrainian sailors reports that the persecution has communicated an intention to formulate final charges by July 9.
Why is the Kremlin so brazen in escalating the Kerch Straight standoff? The answer is quite clear — with the objective to establish a full unilateral control over the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea.
The Kremlin has blocked the renegotiation of fishing quotas for the Sea of Azov. The Russian FSB and the National Guard have been taking Ukrainian fishermen as prisoners. The Russian government, without any legal merit, pressures other countries for transit permits; demands that Russian maritime pilots are included in international court proceedings.
Russia’s ongoing military operation in Syria provides an additional context for these developments. Sevastopol plays a critical role in military resupply to the Mediterranean. This, in turn, is intensifying the process of militarization of the entire Crimean Peninsula.
At the same time, Russian military aircraft and maritime vessels are engaging in provocative military maneuvers far from the Russian border with an ever-increasing frequency, threatening sea lines of communication. The two most recent episodes took place in early June 2019: Russian destroyer Admiral Vinogradov conducted a threatening maneuver against a vessel from the U.S. 7th Fleet in the Philippine Sea; and a Russian SU-35 jet conducted an intercept of a U.S. Navy aircraft over the Mediterranean Sea.
In their public statements, the Kremlin officials stress their readiness to cooperate with international institutions; express readiness to comply the legal norms and compel others to do the same. However, the situation with Ukrainian military sailors, ignoring of the laws of the sea and the ruling of the Hamburg court show that Moscow is acting in such as manner as if it were bent on uprooting the entire international order established after the World War II.
This double game is not compatible with the high status accorded to Russia through its permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council.
Against this backdrop, the fight over the release of Ukrainian sailors – are important de-escalation measures, and their outcome have profound ramifications for all of the G20 members states.
Ukraine is pressing not only for the release of its sailors, but also for giving the Kerch Straight the status of international waters. In Kiev’s view, this move will mitigate the risk of further clashes.
It is high time to call a UN Security Council session to adopt a special resolution compelling Russia to comply with the ruling of the International Court. It is also critical to consider introducing limitations against the seabed infrastructure of Russian pipelines, the ports of Azov, as well as against entities who facilitate certification of foreign vessels with their subsequent registration under the Russian Federation flag and offer services to foreign operators to establish lines of communications with the closed ports of Crimea in violation of sanctions.
Article 60 of the Vienna Convention of 1969 as well as Article 51 of the U.N. Charter establish the legal basis for Ukraine to suspend or completely withdraw from the 2003 Russo-Ukrainian Agreement, establish a 24-mile adjacent zone and claim the width of its territorial waters as well as continental shelf territories. If this takes place, the Azov Sea beyond the territorial waters will become international, and the Kerch Straight, in accordance to the Part 3 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea will acquire the status of a straight used for international communications.
If Moscow moves ahead with military proceedings against Ukrainian military sailors in direct violation of international norms, all European offices of Russian Maritime Register of Shipping and Russian River Register of Shipping must be shut down; and advisory must be issued to European vessel owners, operators and insurers to avoid cooperation with the Russian Registers for purposes of maritime activities.
We must not forget that Russia has illegally ceased Ukrainian vessels Petro Godovanets, Ukraine, Centaur, Sivash, Fyodor Uryupin and is now exploiting them The UN International Maritime Organization (IMO) should not ignore these demonstrative and gross violations of the international law by Russia. These pirate tactics are incompatible with Russia’s high status at the IMO Council. Ukraine, in its turn, should consider demanding stripping Russia of this status.
International organizations in charge of enforcing maritime laws must force Russia to release Ukrainian military sailors, stop its pirating activities vis-à-vis civilian vessels and prevent further Moscow’s advances aiming to close off the Sea of Azov.
This Article first appeared in Russian at the Дом Свободной России.